May 5th, on a very special episode of Guardians of the Galaxy: The Series, Peter Quill finally meets his father, but everything may not be what it seems.
We’ll get back to that in a moment…
One of the more palpable reactions I’ve ever encountered from an audience during an advanced media screening was in July 2014 for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. You could literally feel the tension in the room when the very dark, ominous opening moments of the then-unknown Marvel Studios property began - a roomful of skeptic critics bracing for an overly serious superheroes-nobody-heard-of movie set in space, anticipating Marvel Studios' first genuine misfire.
The wave of relief and unexpected joy when Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord turned on his Walkman and began dancing to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” that washed across the theater could be felt by everyone there. Director (and then-co-writer) James Gunn's misdirection put the room in the palm of his hand, and he’s been playing with House (of Ideas) money ever since.
Gunn gives back some of his hard-earned chips for a good two-thirds of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, only to win a big final pot in a rousing third act (maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best), leaving the much-anticipated sequel a slightly-off key, but ultimately successful next link in Hollywood’s longest winning streak.
Channeling Nigel Tufnel from This is Spinal Tap, Gunn turns his successful formula about an 'ill-matched crew of losers who have no one else but each another' up to 11 - but for the first hour it's a zero-sum game. Everything is bigger, brighter, louder, and the core cast members bicker even more, but in this case, less would have been more.
Even the clever opening credit sequence (which you’ve seen a lot of in the trailers and commercials) takes one of the most charming surprise gags from the first film and repeats and extends it to the point where it just isn’t quite as charming.
A good deal of Vol. 2 feels the same. It just isn't as original and disarming as the first time even though you really want it to be.
Readers of Newsarama are very likely to be familiar with Gunn’s can’t-fake-it enthusiasm and genuine affection for the characters, so Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t come off as cynical when it commits moments of sequel-itis - returning verbatim to and trying to outdo fan-favorite beats from the first film. But the efforts come off somewhat forced and awkward. Gunn as DJ is pumping out popular tunes, but for much of the film the audience doesn't join him on the dance floor - ironic given that dancing is one of the film’s themes.
If Guardians of the Galaxy was that epic high school party than happened out of nowhere you and your friends still talk about at reunions. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the (self-)conscious effort to top that party, and comes off a little lacking the spontaneity that made the original so memorable.
Some of this is due to Gunn’s (this time as sole screenwriter) story structure. Much of the middle film plays more like an episode of a TV series rather than a $200-million-dollar feature film. The characters are even given very-TV-like A, B, and C plots - A.) Peter meets his dad (Kurt Russell); B.) Rocket, Groot and Yondu bond in their own adventure; and C.) Gamora and Nebula work on their sisterly relationship. That leaves mostly Drax and Mantis to provide comic relief in their own D.) storyline.
Feeling very Star Trek:TOS-esque on a very CGI Ego the Living Planet, the second act is almost-all spoken exposition – the characters mostly walk around sets on Ego and have a lot of conversations. Russell’s Ego-in-man-form explains a lot to Peter, but Gamora becomes increasingly skeptical of the whole situation and tries to warn Peter until a discovery is made that sets off the final action-oriented act.
And that’s when Gunn manages to pull it all together anyway. Out Joss-Whedoning Joss Whedon (right down to The Avengers director's signature circular pan around the team as they gather as a unit for the first time), the writer-director finally gives audiences what they wanted all along - for the Guardians of the Galaxy to move forward and not just try to recapture what came before.
Like Age of Ultron and Civil War, Guardians Vol. 2 goes a little backwards, making the team highly dysfunctional (again, all against another soundtrack of 70s and 80s hits) in order to have them relearn why they work best together at the end. And because Gunn manages a better third act than the original, most of the backtracking is overcome ... and forgiven.
Gunn weaves an intricate and impressive extended action sequence that demonstrates rather than talks about their relationships; and the only thing holding it back from topping the original Marvel’s The Avengers signature ‘New York' third act as the MCU’s very best is how CGI it all is. But that’s a small deduction, however.
And where Guardians Vol. 2 really scores is the final aftermath scene, easily the MCU's best ... or at least, most satisfying. Yes, it's about as blatantly hokey, sentimental and emotionally manipulative as a studio tent-pole movie can possibly be, but flat-out works anyway. You know Gunn is playing you like a fiddle, but most Marvel fans probably won't care, because you also know his sentiment is real and not contrived or commercial.
Combined with funky and fun closing credits and that reported five credit cut scenes interspersed (one of which will mean little to general audiences but will have Marvel die-hards giddy), moviegoers will exit Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on an emotional high feeling a lot better about the overall experience than the true sum of its parts.
But what works, works. And it does.